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Born volcanic

April 3, 2011

About 35 miles (as the crow flies) is the distance from St. John Medical Center in Longview, Washington to the base of Mount St. Helens, but from what Grandma Beanie told me, the mountain, with it’s top intact, could be the first thing I ever saw. It would have taken a bright moon but, who knows, anything is possible.

During our Google Earth trip to volcanoes of the world and prior to the browser tab hopping that landed us on a BBC production of the last day of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum as Vesuvius was erupting, we talked a bit about the story of the unusual doctor who attended my mother and me on the night of my birth. I know very little about him other than his name was Dr. James Donnelly, and he was progressive for his time.

Grandma Beanie knew childbirth intimately. I was her fifth child, and there were two more born after me. She delivered scary fast, having just one massive labor pain she compared to being hit on the back with a sledge hammer, before the baby was on the way. The good part of that was that she had only one massive pain to deal with; the bad parts were that she could deliver anywhere, and the doctor was likely to always be late to the party, arriving when the plates and cups were being washed up and the garbage being taken out. So to speak.

Her first child was caught by the doctor, the second was born partly in the car and partly in the hospital elevator. By the time she was having her third child the old Minnesota family doctor had had enough of her shenanigans.

He put her in the hospital early, wheeled in a cart of glass drinking tumblers and told her, “If you have that massive pain, don’t bother with the nurse’s call button. Start throwing these glasses into the hall.”

He also had all of the interns and residents in the hospital on call. They were to come running at the sound of breaking glass or upon being notified of the sound of breaking glass by the nurses (she never actually threw any glasses—she had decorum). The old doctor wanted the next generation of obstetricians to see something as unusual as a woman who delivered after just one pain. Grandma Beanie was humiliated when they all traipsed into the delivery room, and was glad when the doctor administered medication to put her to sleep (they really did that back in those days; Grandma Beanie said that she was always saying, “Gimme gas, gimme gas!”)

Her fourth child was the last to be born in Minnesota and with far less fanfare, but the doctor did admit her to the hospital early to ensure that medical staff would be on hand when the baby was born. By the time I was coming Grandpa John needed to move the family to Longview, Washington for a job. Grandma Beanie explained to her new doctor how quickly she delivered, and he talked to the old family doctor in Minnesota for more information. Once again Grandma Beanie was admitted into the hospital early. Her pain came just before midnight on June 23rd. People were discussing whether I would be born on your great-great grandmother Dodie’s birthday, the 23rd (you took that honor many years later, being born on Dodie’s birthday), or on Grandpa John’s birthday, the 24th. I was born on the 24th. Just barely.

Grandma Beanie said the doctor was calm and prepared, and had her wheeled into the delivery room but did not give her any sleeping gas (oh no!). She was later happy to have been awake to see what he did immediately after I made my first appearance into the world. He didn’t turn me upside down or smack me on the bottom, variations of which were common in those days. He bundled me up in a receiving blanket while massaging me to encourage a cry, then carried me to a window and introduced me to the world. Grandma Beanie said it was beautiful. I think it’s beautiful. I believe something like that can affect a person—even a tiny baby. I know the story of my birth has affected me all of my life, and caused me to try to be a little kinder, and maybe a little more aware of the people and world around me.

About ten years ago a friend told me he believes that people who are born near the base of volcanoes take on aspects of the volcano’s behavior. It’s an interesting thought and, if true, means that like Mount St. Helens, I can seem to be a quiet, sleepy old thing for a long time, but if I simmer and stew I can blow in quite an astonishing manner. As I think about it, I believe my old friend may be right.

Lewis and Clark Bridge, with Mount St. Helens, WashingtonLewis and Clark Bridge, as seen from Oregon Highway-30, downstream of Rainier, Oregon. The bridge spans the Columbia River from Longview, Washington, to Rainier, Oregon. Mount St. Helens, Washington, is in the background. © Lyn Topinka, 2004

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2 comments

  1. Came across your blog from the ultimate blog party! I LOVE what you are doing here on this blog. This is just great and I wish more “older people” (sorry. it’s early and it was for lack of a better word!) would see the importance of passing down these stories. Your granddaughter is one very lucky girl. :)


  2. It’s okay Meg, I like being an older people. Thanks so much for stopping by.



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